Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

八月の狂詩曲 (Rhapsody in August)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kane: People do anything just to win war. Sooner or later it will destroy us all.

When Akira Kurosawa's 八月の狂詩曲 (Rhapsody in August) first premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, it was ruthlessly attacked by critics. It was the story of a family coming to terms with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 about forty years later. It was decried as a kind of revisionist history where the Japanese were depicted as innocent victims of the atomic bombs. During the press conference at the film festival, a journalist apparently yelled out, “Why was the bomb dropped in the first place?” Even back home in his native Japan, Rhapsody in August was besieged by critics. One Japanese cultural critic wrote, “Many critics, myself included, thought Kurosawa chauvinistic in his portrayal of the Japanese as victims of the war, while ignoring the brutal actions of the Japanese and whitewashing them with cheap humanist sentiment.” It seemed as if nobody was willing to look beyond the historical implications and look at the movie itself.

True, the story did center around a family headed by a 被爆者 (hibakusha), or explosion-affected people, who was widowed by the Nagasaki bombing. And yes, it did make her out to be a victim. And finally, yes, it didn't make any mention of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the subsequent war crimes committed by the Japanese against the civilian population. But it was never intended to make Japan look innocent. It was an honest story about the victims of the atomic bombs. There were people who survived the attacks and were forced to live with the memories of lost loved ones. Many of those people were civilians who had no part in the war crimes committed abroad. And yet, when Kurosawa tried to focus on these unfortunate souls, he was attacked as a whitewasher of history. The jury at the Cannes Film Festival may have taken umbrage at the depiction of World War Two aggressors as victims. After all, they had no problem awarding Lars Von Trier's Europa the Jury Prize, a movie about neo-Nazis in Germany destroying the life of an American do-gooder (The jury that year was headed by Roman Polanski, a survivor of the Kraków Ghetto. There were, by the way, no Japanese members of the jury that year). But to those who understand Kurosawa, Rhapsody in August is one of his most personal films. It depicts a major reconciliation with one of the defining themes of his career, the atomic bombing of Japan. It's agenda was not the placement of blame, but an examination of those who were scarred, both emotionally and physically, by one of the most devastating attacks in human history.

There are three generations involved in Rhapsody in August. The first is an elderly woman named Kane. Her husband was killed in the Nagasaki bombing. She herself was affected by the radiation after she went into the city directly after the blast in order to try and locate her husband. She lived through the worst part of the war. Thankfully her children, the next generation, only had to live through post-war Japan and the reconstruction. One of these is an American cousin named Clark who lives in Hawaii. His father was a man who may or may not be one of Kane's brothers. But it doesn't matter. Kane clearly doesn't want to see him. It's obvious that she hasn't forgiven the Americans for the bombing. Of course, she would never admit that. Whenever the subject is brought up, she sighs and says that it was all part of a war. You can't blame people for what they do during a war. Sachiko Murase does a fantastic job as Kane. Her lines are sparse, but we are always able to tell what she is thinking. Her body language and subdued reactions express more than any piece of dialogue ever could.

But the film primarily concerns itself with the last generation: Kane's four grandchildren who come visit her while their parents go to Hawaii to meet the man who may be a member of their family. They are fascinated by the idea that they may have an American relative. But they realize that the implications of an American family member are devastating for Kane, so they decide to go into Nagasaki and learn more about the bombing. Several of the film's most poignant moments come during the children's exploration of Nagasaki. They visit a memorial fountain with an inscription that after the bomb dropped all you could hear was people begging for water. Before they leave they splash water onto the plaque as if to quench the eternally thirsty. They visit the place directly under where the bomb exploded. They comment on all of the statues sent from all over the world. “Where is the one from America,” one asks. “America wouldn't send one, they dropped the bomb,” another answers. During these scenes, Kurosawa makes an interesting choice of frequently framing his shots on the locations that the children visit with them taking up part of the foreground. It is a powerful effect as it seems to beg the viewer to stop and truly look at these places where one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century took place.

But one of the most powerful scenes comes when the children visit the old schoolyard where their grandfather was killed. Everything has been rebuilt and a concrete lot occupies the spot where the building must have stood. The only exception is a rusted old jungle gym that was somehow left standing after the bomb dropped. Now, the survivors who had classmates at the school return annually to clean it and place fresh flowers around it. Someone with a careful eye will recognize that they place the flowers around the jungle gym in a circle, except for two small openings on either side. Why are they there? So the children who died can enter the circle and play on the jungle gym, of course.

Here we see one of the best examples of a flower motif that Kurosawa evokes several times over the course of the film. Flowers are seen at various memorial services, particularly the one held on the anniversary of the bomb at a small shrine near Kane's house. The children notice a long line of ants on the ground and follow them to see that they end on a glorious rose blossom. An obvious interpretation would be that flowers represent life amidst this story of death. But I would like to point out another possible reading of this motif. After the bombs were dropped, it was reported that flowers and other plants returned after the dust settled at enormous sizes. Apparently the nuclear radiation sped up their growth and resulted in some of the most vibrant flowers that the cities had ever seen. Make of that whatever you will.

But I have lingered on motifs and symbolism long enough. What about Kane's American cousin? He is played by Richard Gere and I would like to say right now that I loved his performance. Some might be bothered by his less than perfect grasp of Japanese and his accent, but that is what makes his character believable. Gere plays a man who obviously knows a little Japanese, but as an American probably doesn't have many opportunities to practice it. So of course when he goes to Japan he will sound awkward. Let me explain something. When I went to Japan I had spent two years studying Japanese. And yet the first couple of weeks there, I could hardly make myself say simple things like “thank you” or “please.” When I finally did, it sounded broken and foreign. Now imagine if I had gone to Japan to meet long lost family members. I shudder to think how I might have sounded.

Ah yes, but what impact does Gere's character have? Well, he hits it off with the children right away. “He's as tall as John Wayne,” one of them jokes while they try to make a bed big enough for their American guest. They take great delight in practicing their English with him and Gere is more than happy to oblige them with his tenuous grasp of Japanese. They go to a local waterfall and Gere accidentally makes a fool out of himself by misquoting a Japanese proverb. The kids joyfully correct him and Gere falls to the ground in mock disappointment. The kids laugh some more and Gere looks up with a smile on his face and joins them. Of course, he is there to meet his family, but what we are really interested in is his meeting with Kane.

It's a quiet meeting that takes place at night. They talk in hushed tones about their family and how their lives have changed since the bomb dropped. I don't want to spoil the poetry of the moment, so I can only advise you to discover this scene for yourself, but it does end in reconciliation. And this is what the movie is all about. It is about survivors of one of the greatest tragedies that the world has ever known coming to terms with themselves and the people who caused them so much pain. I like to imagine that in this scene, Kane is played by Kurosawa. Throughout his career, the ghost of the nuclear bomb has haunted him. This is why I don't think that it is proper to call this movie a piece of revisionist history. If Kurosawa released this film as a sprightly twenty-something, then that might be cause for concern. But he was eighty-one years old when this film was released. He actually lived through Japan's darkest moment and his films are a testament to this. They document Japan's desperate struggles to rebuild, the glory of the economic miracle, and finally the days of Japan as an economic superpower. In a sense, Kurosawa's films are one of the best historical records of Twentieth Century Japan that we have. And finally, at the end of his career, he is able to have his characters embrace those who caused so much pain and suffering to his beloved country. That is the true miracle.

Before I end this review, I want to draw attention to the last scene of Rhapsody in August. Gere has left for the United States after learning that his father has died. The family has reconciled, but there is still tension as the anniversary of the bomb approaches. And then, suddenly, a rainstorm hits. The lightning causes Kane to have a flashback to the bomb. She covers the children in white clothing because she believes that it will protect them from the radiation. And then, one of the most beautiful sequences in Kurosawa's entire career takes place. She goes outside into the rain armed with nothing but a small umbrella. The children chase after her, but they cannot catch her. Kane struggles in the wind until her umbrella folds itself into the wind. At that exact moment a chorus of children are heard. Some may see this as a depressing ending that proves that Kane has not in face come to terms with the bomb. But I would like to point something out to the naysayers. Look at the umbrella. Doesn't it look like a rose? And the song that the children sing...Is it not also about a rose? Look in the movie for other references to roses. Hopefully you will understand that this is not a moment of desperation, but a moment of hope. But the only people who will realize this are those who choose to truly give this film a chance. And may God bless those who do.



  1. I know what you mean.

    It may be a bit uneven, especially in the scenes with Richard Gere. But it still has some incredible moments that remind you that you are witnessing the work of a master.

  2. Just finished seeing and writing this. A worthwhile film about a difficult subject, and a rare one which gets near to the root.

  3. I know what you mean. The atomic bomb was something that haunted Kurosawa for decades.